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Austin chefs want to change the conversation on substance abuse, mental health

Austin American-Statesman - 8/20/2019

Work hard, live hard, party hard, hang on. It's a destructive (and sometimes romanticized) cycle that has long been a stereotype of the food and beverage industry in America.

Industry jobs can impose monumental stress. The hours are often long and late. The temptations to self-medicate are ever-present. The circumstances can form close bonds among those in the hospitality ranks. They can also lead to substance abuse and mental health issues.

The accommodations and food services industry has one of the highest rates of substance abuse disorders in the country, according to a study of 19 industries published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2015. And, in 2017, Mental Health America published a survey that ranked the food and beverage industry as one of the worst industries in the country in terms of mental health.

Those stats and stereotypes are now facing pushback as leaders in the industry come together to talk about a path forward. Celebrated food personalities and chefs from Andrew Zimmern to Sean Brock (of restaurant Husk, in several Southern cities) have helped destigmatize substance abuse and bring the conversation around mental health into the light in recent years.

Two groups, Ben's Friends and Heard, have recently expanded to Austin, where chefs and former spouses Philip Speer (Comedor) and Callie Speer (Holy Roller), both sober for several years, have helped lead efforts to give service industry workers a place for help and healing and a chance to change the narrative surrounding their professional community.

Ben's Friends

Charleston restaurateurs Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer couldn't watch drugs and alcohol claim another victim in the industry they loved.

Palmer received a call informing him that Charleston chef Ben Murray had taken his own life after a battle with substance abuse issues and knew it was time to take serious action.

"We were both tired of seeing how many kids were, frankly, killing themselves," Bakst said. "It was the pink elephant lying in the middle of the floor that nobody talked about."

» Related read: Comfort Cafe in Smithville helps pave the road to recovery

The two well-regarded industry veterans started Ben's Friends in the fall of 2016, named in honor of Murray. The weekly meeting, which respects the anonymity of its participants, gives service industry workers a space to gather and talk about their fight with substance abuse and a path to sober living.

The nonprofit group, which has expanded to Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, Richmond and Portland, earlier this month launched its Austin chapter at Comedor, the restaurant owned by William Ball and Philip Speer, the co-founders of this newest chapter. Meetings, free and open to all members of the hospitality industry, take place at 11 a.m. every Monday at Comedor (501 Colorado St.).

Philip Speer, the chef-owner of the sleek modern Mexican restaurant that opened this summer, has thrived in recovery for the last four years following a DWI that landed him in the news. The former longtime culinary director of Uchi turned that negative publicity into a public platform to bring attention to substance issues in his extended professional family, raising money through events and a food truck to fund education to destigmatize addiction and offer help to those looking for a change.

When Philip Speer heard about Ben's Friends, a collection that already included his friends and star Portland chefs Gabriel Rucker and Gregory Gourdet, he knew he wanted to join their mission. A chat with Rucker at this year's Hot Luck Festival helped seal the deal.

Philip Speer, who has worked in Austin restaurants the past two decades, said he has seen his industry suffer on both personal and professional levels because of drinking and drug use. He said open conversations about wellness and mental health can create a healthier industry, and he believes Ben's Friends can serve as an integral part of that dialogue.

"We don't have staff because nobody feels good. Nobody has loyalty in place, and I understand it, because nobody's taken care of," Philip Speer said. "So, people are looking for that. I don't want to blame it on a generation or scapegoat the industry, but I feel like as a whole in our society, people are looking for a little bit more nurturing. If they're going and spending a third of their day every day working for someone else, they're looking for something more in return."

Philip Speer said that for years after late restaurant shifts, it would not be uncommon to see an entire restaurant's staff drinking at a bar together into the early hours of the morning, and you'd begin to wonder, "Who's gonna get a DWI? Who's gonna get in a fight? Who's gonna hook up? Who's gonna call in sick tomorrow?"

"I think when it got to its worst, you just didn't want to be a part of it. You didn't want to go to work," Philip Speer said.

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Now he's hoping that the industry can begin to focus more on pre-shift culture than post-shift culture.

"Let's be open. When this becomes a problem, let's be able to talk about it. We have this, pun intended, hunger to be better, to last longer," Philip Speer said of his industry peers. "To take the grueling stress and hours and to take better care of ourselves."

That self-care extends beyond meetings of Ben's Friends. Philip Speer started the Comedor Run Club in April. The group, which celebrates camaraderie and healthy lifestyles on social media, has grown from a handful of cooks at the Mexican restaurant to include a rotating cast of more than a dozen runners from about 10 restaurants and bars around town. The club meets at the downtown restaurant at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for a 5K run and on Saturdays for longer runs, and the meet-ups have expanded to include free (tip-based) yoga instruction at 10 a.m. Thursdays at Comedor.

"We think that we can shift the mentality of what restaurant, cook, chef, server and bartender camaraderie can be," Philip Speer said. "We can share those moments over a run or yoga, rather than a bar or shot."

Heard

Holy Roller owner-chef Callie Speer is a natural-born skeptic. So, when she heard that a group of chefs at the Indie Chefs Week event in Chicago in May planned to get together and discuss their struggles in the notoriously demanding profession, she had her reservations.

The sit-down with her peers changed all of that. She found a group of mostly male chefs willing to be vulnerable, open to talking about the ugly side of jobs they often glorify. People talked about failed relationships, thoughts of suicide and dissatisfaction in their professional pursuits. The meeting was a revelation, she said.

"It was amazing to see. Not only were people willing to actually talk about that in a group, especially when so many of those people have such huge egos, it was actually pretty crazy that they were able and willing to share," she said. "And they also had such individual stories that all had this general undertone of, 'But we're not supposed to talk about that.'"

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Around that same time, Callie Speer learned about Heard, a nonprofit organization started by San Antonio service industry veteran Joel Rivas in 2018 focused on promoting mental health awareness and supporting hospitality industry professionals through group meetings, advocacy and social services.

The group had just expanded to Austin, and Callie Speer, who has been sober for three years, wanted to be a part of the group's mission. She joined the board in June.

While both Callie Speer and Rivas are in recovery from their own battles with addiction, Heard was created to focus more generally on mental health in the service industry. The group, which recently expanded to Houston and plans to expand into New Orleans and Dallas by the end of the year, holds meetings from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Holy Roller (509 San Rio Grade St.).

"I feel like people in this industry are a certain type of personality that are willing to work themselves into the ground. Not all people are like that. It takes a certain type of person, and I think those people have a tendency to lean toward having those issues," Callie Speer said.

While not specifically dedicated to helping industry professionals battling substance abuse issues, Heard attracts many folks who are part of that community. Callie Speer says that the meetings give people a chance to share their challenges with a like-minded group and be seen by others who can understand their perspective, some of whom, like Callie Speer, find the time demands and structure of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings constricting.

"It's hard to get people who are in that quick-fire mindset to sit still," Callie Speer said about people used to the fast pace of working in restaurants and bars. "So to convince someone to go into this very structured organization that is going to require a huge time commitment is hard. So I think that's why this can be a little more successful. It's geared to those people with those mindsets."

Callie Speer knows that her path to sobriety has been paved with some good fortune. When she left rehab several years ago, the possibility of running her own restaurant kind of fell into her lap. As owner of her own restaurant, a top 50 establishment in the 2018 Austin360 Dining Guide, she was able to build her own environment and culture, creating a safe place for her recovery and potentially others looking for more balance.

"I think if I would have had to go find a job somewhere else, it would have been hard," Callie Speer said, adding that she has a chef friend who tried to return to the restaurant world following rehab and was unable to re-acclimate to the culture.

Callie Speer says that the challenges for sober service industry veterans extend beyond the demands of the kitchen or restaurant.

"We're so social and so networked together that it becomes impossible to envision how that looks any other way," Callie Speer said. "I think for anybody, that's what it boils down to is fitting in. Everybody has that desire even if they say they don't. And that gets harder."

Heard offers a chance for people living in sobriety or navigating mental health issues to realize that they are not alone, that their problems are normal and can be addressed. It also cultivates a community of people who can support one another -- and hold each other accountable.

"I'm super tired of the fact that our industry is meant to be this party nightmare. I've watched so many people -- even people that don't need to be sober people -- just get torn down by that. It doesn't have to be that way," Callie Speer said. "And it doesn't change overnight. We're all going to continue to live in this environment, so if it's not going to be any different, at least you have this place to go for a moment for a reprieve."

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Heard, which has a doctor and a lawyer on its board who offer connections and resources for those who need aid, is also in the early stages of developing a program akin to the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and SIMS that can assist service industry workers in getting affordable health care and access to mental health services.

The group is hosting an event Oct. 28 with teams sponsored by 20 restaurants and bars around town competing in field-day events with a service industry twist. Spectators will be able to purchase tickets tied to teams' performances, with winners entered in a chance to win prize packages that will include items such as a vacation to Mexico. Money raised at the event will go toward Heard's goal of creating its greater health care initiative.

"It's been a long time coming," Callie Speer said of the open dialogue around substance abuse and wellness. "It was exciting to me that someone had done that sort of thing in a way that felt very real and very thought out and very well executed. Combined with the fact that at this point maybe I'm comfortable enough in my own sobriety to feel like I can be helpful."

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